Robbie Neilson baffled as Hearts deputies torn apart at Dens

Dundee's James McPake deals with a Hearts corner kick as Callum Paterson lurks at the back post. Photograph: David Lamb
Dundee's James McPake deals with a Hearts corner kick as Callum Paterson lurks at the back post. Photograph: David Lamb
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THOSE buoyed by Hearts’ performance against England’s champions on Friday night had their enthusiasm tempered on Tayside. Paul Hartley’s Dundee enjoyed another convincing pre-season win thanks to Gary Harkins’ penalty and two exquisite Luka Tankulic goals. Robbie Neilson, the Hearts head coach, was left struggling for any positives.

For all that Dundee impressed, their visitors were pretty dismal. Hearts were strong against Manchester City last Friday but had a disjointed look about them as they lost 3-0 last night. Seven changes to the team was a factor, yet many of those who came in looked lethargic considering they were trying to stake a claim for a place in Neilson’s side. That aspect was difficult to explain.

Dundee deserved credit for the clinical way they set about Hearts. Harkins was the creative hub, with Tankulic emerging from the substitutes’ bench at half-time to become the star man. The German striker scored from outside the box and then struck a stylish free kick on a night when the Hearts defence was gifting chances to the opposition.

The experience of Neil Alexander, Danny Wilson and Morgaro Gomis was missing and that appeared to take its toll. Neilson will have learned much about the players who deputised. Indeed, picking his team for Saturday’s Petrofac Training Cup tie with Annan may now be decidedly easier.

“I was disappointed,” he said. “We made a few changes and I hoped the boys who came in would have a wee bit of fire about them to prove they can get in the team. To be honest, I thought Dundee played really well and I was really impressed with them. They pressed it well, passed it well and moved it well.

“We didn’t have the same intensity as we’ve had over the last few weeks. It’s pre-season and the boys will learn what’s expected of them and we’ll move on.”

Winger Jamie Walker, a second-half substitute, said: “We never got going but fair play to Dundee. They put us to the sword and they played very well. The manager changed the team around and a few people got chances. I don’t know if they did themselves justice.”

Hartley, meanwhile, is trying to stifle the increasing excitement at Dens Park. Dundee have won three and drawn one of their four pre-season friendlies, which started with a fine 2-0 win over Manchester City.

“The pleasing thing for me are the performances and how we’re trying to work the ball,” he said. “It’s something we’ve worked on for the last three or four weeks – how we want to play and the intensity of our passing and combination play. It’s good winning pre-season games and winning them well but I’m not stupid. I realise that when the real stuff starts, that’s when it counts and that’s what matters.”

In Tankulic, he appears to have signed a forward with genuine panache and goal-scoring ability. “He’s a confident lad,” continued Hartley. “I didn’t know he took free kicks but I do now, which is pleasing. He looks really sharp and strong. I thought him and Craig Wighton linked up really well. I felt Wighton was excellent when he came on. Luka’s awareness was different class so the two of them look really promising.

“I was pleased with Luka’s first goal. We’d been encouraging him to shoot a bit earlier and not take too many touches. He did that and it was with his weaker foot. He scored two good goals, so hopefully he can only get better.”

Dundee’s intent was clear from the start of the match. Harkins missed an early chance from Paul McGinn’s low cross before a ricochet inside the penalty box was stabbed wide by Peter MacDonald. Scott Gallacher, making his Hearts debut in goal, wasn’t seriously tested until the 18th minute, when one of his own team-mates hoisted a backpass towards him. Kevin McHattie would have heaved a sigh of relief as the goalkeeper confidently volleyed clear.

Seconds later, MacDonald angled a 20-yard free kick over the Hearts wall and off Gallacher’s right post with the goalkeeper beaten. Dundee’s attacks were the more cohesive and their crisp passing in the final third was creating openings. Hearts were too often guilty of using a high ball forward, which would not have pleased Neilson.

David Smith’s 25-yard drive rasped the palms of the Dundee goalkeeper Kyle Letheren on 25 minutes. However, the home team remained in command and won a penalty on 32 minutes. From another McGinn cross, Harkins collected the ball but fell going past Callum Paterson inside the penalty area. Referee Craig Thomson instantly pointed to the spot and Harkins stroked the ball to Gallacher’s right from 12 yards.

Hearts’ captain for the evening, Brad McKay, had a header saved following a corner but the break arrived with the visitors looking second best. Dundee would have doubled their advantage seconds after the restart but for a fine reaction save by Gallacher to deny Tankulic, one of Hartley’s six interval substitutions. It took only another few minutes for the second goal to arrive. Jason Holt’s weak backward pass towards Jordan McGhee was seized upon by Tankulic, who motored forward to steer the ball low into the far corner of the Hearts net from 20 yards. It was a fine finish by a new signing who will be the focal point of Dundee’s attack this season.

The response by Hearts firstly involved a driving run by Prince Buaben and low cross for Dale Carrick, who could only scoop the ball over the crossbar. James Keatings’ free-kick attempt soon after was also too high. On 64 minutes, substitute Gomis slid a pass through to Carrick, but the striker could only scuff his shot wide under extreme pressure.

Neilson’s players were now playing at a higher tempo, yet their erratic defending continued to cost them possession in dangerous areas. Dundee substitute Martin Boyle stung Gallacher’s palms prior to the third goal, which was the pick of the evening. McHattie fouled Wighton on the edge of the penalty box and Tankulic calmly stepped up to fire the dead ball high beyond Gallacher.

Dundee (4-3-1-2): Letheren; McGinn (Kerr 63), McPake (17, Konrad, Dyer; McGowan (Riley 63), Ferry (McBride 46), McAlister (Roberts 46); Harkins (Boyle 46); Stewart (Wighton 46), MacDonald (Tankulic 46). Subs: Adam, Benedictus.

Hearts (4-2-3-1): Gallacher; Paterson, McKay, McGhee, McHattie; Buaben (Gomis 59), Holt (Robinson 59); King (Oliver 59), Keatings, Smith (Walker 46); Carrick. Subs: Alexander, Wilson, Ozturk.

Referee: Craig Thomson.

Attendance: 2551.